The multi-talented comedienne took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about her upcoming tour, her support of Equality Texas in light of the recent incidents of gay bullying and suicides ("My heart really goes out to kids who are afraid") and other topics that stir her up, such as the Tea Party ("We don't know what we're talking about and we like it that way!"), Lady Gaga as a modern role model ("sometimes I think it would be nice if she just sat down and talked and didn't have like the 15 inch shoes on and stuff") her definition of feminism ("to me it's kind of being a warrior and fighting through all odds to be an individual, independent and free") and her perspective on her own comedy: "Although I touch on things political and sometimes things come across with an edge, ultimately my goal is to constantly mine the goodness of humanity."
INTERVIEW WITH MARIANNE SCHNALL (10/20/10)
Marianne Schnall: The last time I interviewed you was back in 1994.
Sandra Bernhard: Wow. I think that was just yesterday. I love stuff like that.
MS: I also wanted you to know you are in my book that just came out, Daring to be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice - I have some great quotes from you that are in it. I'm going to send you a copy.
SB: That's wonderful!
MS: So, how are you?
SB: Good. You know a lot has changed since 1994. And it's all of it is very positive and remarkable and just really, really great.
MS: How would you describe the themes or message of your current show?
SB: It's really like the last part being squeezed out of a toothpaste tube; it's like what's left that we have to cling to; what's left we have to build on and believe in and explore as a culture, as a race - everything that's been flogged and beaten and humiliated and punched away at over the past, definitely 8 to 10 years during the Bush Administration - you know the kind of basic things that were just exploited and torn apart. I just like to be somebody who builds on what's left of positivity and try to take it back to another level. It's a very convoluted way of saying it, but I think through humor, I think through actualization and discussion and visualization; the people that want and need things to be peaceful and creative and beautiful, can effect great changes through their work and I like to think that I can do that. Although I touch on things political and sometimes things come across with an edge, ultimately my goal is to constantly mine the goodness of humanity.
MS: Which I think is so important now, more than ever.
SB: Definitely. Absolutely.
MS: And the fact that it's done with humor - I mean, things are so heavy and complicated in the world. I was reading something that you had said about how you liked the comedy of Stephen Colbert; and I was thinking about the role of political comedians like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart in the world today - sometimes it is easier to digest the hard news of the world with that satirical spin.
SB: It is, without a doubt. I mean Obama has done a lot of wonderful things; but it has all been negated by the constant chatter on the right and also people's unbelievably unrealistic expectations of him to do things that were so fucked up and destroyed by the previous administration. You would have to be some sort of a magician and a Merlin to transform it over night. And I think he's done great things: he's put two women on the Supreme Court, in what could have been the end of Roe v. Wade - it could have been any number of catastrophic things; that I don't know if we ever would have recovered from. And if McCain and Sarah Palin ended up in the White House; we would probably be in a full scale war in Iran - there's just no telling. And considering what was left and what he has to peel away and then the constant - the new things that crop up every day, I think he's ahead of the game and I'm glad he's there and I hope that he's given the opportunity to do as much as he can do this time around, and then the next time around.
MS: What do you make of the Tea Party?
SB: I think they are a lot of really, really uninformed people. They don't want to be informed. They're uninformed and they're going to stay that way - damn it! Come hell or high water. "We don't know what we're talking about and we like it that way!" That's kind of their motto. They're just angry. They're bitter and they're angry. And what are they most angry about? They're most angry about the fact that they've lost control. That there's a man of color in the White House and they don't like it. And they want women back where they were in the 50's; they want colored people back where they were; they want Mexicans quietly picking their vegetables, and going back into their little huts at night. They don't like the idea of people in cultures moving forward - that freaks them out. This is the only way they have to express it.
MS: You wish that - going back to what you were saying previously - if we could just focus on some of the positive things that Obama's doing, realizing that we can get to where we all want to be faster if we all come together rather than constantly picking sides and fostering such divisiveness.
SB: When you're dealing with the level of stupidity of Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell and Sharon Angle and all their cohorts, forget it; there's no chance. These people are just like narcissistic freaks who've found a platform for their crazy, crazy shit.
MS: I was wondering what you would think about this new crop of conservative women like the ones you just mentioned - because on the one side it's like great that we finally have more women aspiring to positions of power...
SB: Well, we have that - Clinton is at the apex; and those are the women you look to. You don't look to these women who like - how do you say it, antediluvian, when you want to go backwards. They want to take it back to the housewife servicing men of the 30's, 40's and 50's. We've gone through it; it's too late; you can't go back. And the irony is they are the products of the feminist movement and yet they shit all over the feminist movement. It totally doesn't make any sense.
MS: I guess it also shows that it's not just about getting any women in power.
SB: No, it's about getting intelligent, thoughtful, creative people in power; whether they'd be men or women.
MS: I know that these shows you are doing in Texas are being done to benefit Equality Texas. What made you decide to do those shows as a benefit for that organization?
SB: I mean, listen, it kind of dovetails into everything we're talking about and right now we're at a real pivotal crossroads for the gay movement, and I think that with a little push forward it's going to be a real achievement with gay marriage and "don't ask, don't tell" being repealed. I just think that there are a lot of young kids who have been really intimidated and put into these positions and not being able to express themselves. And there has to be a support system in place constantly where people can turn to and express their fears and their emotions, and to know that they are supported and it is a reflection of a real compassionate, intelligent system in place to help people through their crises.
MS: On a personal note, my brother Eric is gay, which I didn't know when we were growing up; he didn't come out until he was 21. Since he has come out he's been totally happy and comfortable being gay. But he's said that he has always wondered what it would have been like to come out when he was a teenager, and you'd like to think that would be possible in today's times - but these recent stories about the bullying and the suicides of all these gay youths prove that even though there has been so much progress, we still have ways to go. You can't help but feel disturbed and saddened by these events. What are your thoughts on why this is still happening? What can be done about it?
SB: I think it's the same thing with the Tea Party wanting their country back. It all falls under the same banner. It's all fine and good when you're laughing about gay characters on TV that are characterizations; but you know, when people have real feelings and this is really their life, it becomes very threatening to a lot of people. And there is a lot of aggression - we're dealing with a terrible economy and people are lashing out at places where they can bully and make themselves feel better in the moment.
MS: Do you think we are moving to a point in our society where we're beginning to interconnect all these forms of discrimination and separation in order to recognize the equality of all people, regardless of race, religion, gender, class, or sexuality?
SB: I think that the majority of people feel that way, but there is still a big enough minority that wants to throw a roadblock or a wrench into the works, so the battle certainly is far from won, but I think that the general population just wants people to live and be happy.
MS: But sometimes I think it would be great if all these different movements could come together; gay rights and women's rights and...
SB: I agree, I couldn't agree more; I think it is all under the same banner. I think thinking people like us do put it all together. Certainly that is what my work has always reflected: a general equality of all people and sort of finality to the fear and the stupidity of people who are trying to stop it.
MS: What advice would you give to a young kid about coming out?
SB: I think, first of all, hopefully to be able to be honest with your own family is the first step. And to seek some sort of refuge from one of these great organizations; The Trevor Project, there are so many great outreach programs that people can call and have some kind of counseling. If you are on the fence and if you are in doubt and you are afraid, take that step and really reach out. And honesty and mental health and confidence all should be folded in together. It's hard for me to say because when I was young, my sexuality was kind of fluid and I just thought it was all kind of groovy. I came at it from such a different - nothing even seemed like a roadblock for me. That's just how I was as a person, in general. So it's hard for me to imagine not having enough confidence to pursue whatever you want in life. My heart really goes out to kids who are afraid. So just to know there are people like me out here and if they want to call me, they can track me down, I'll be glad to talk to them - we're going to battle through and you're going to get through the other side and you're going to be a happy person.
MS: This kind of relates to the theme of my book that you’re in, Daring to Be Ourselves, and the idea of finding your own voice, which for women can be an especially hard thing to do because there are so many pressures against us to be something other than who we are. You have always seemed to have this courage to just brazenly be yourself. Where did that come from?
SB: I always looked to role models when I was really little. I loved people like Barbra Streisand and Carol Channing and Carol Burnett. I always had women that I looked up to, in my own family - my mother was an abstract artist and my grandmother came from Russia and she never left the house without a full face of makeup and then she pulled herself out of all sorts of situations that most people couldn't have survived. So I had people around me, a lot of women in my family who I leaned on and admired. Also, there was a lot of sense of humor about things, and then just on a bigger level I always found actresses and performers who I saw endless possibilities in emulating. I think it's a little more difficult now because who are you looking to - Britney Spears? I mean there's people like Lady Gaga. You also want to see somebody for who they really are, and I guess Lady Gaga has really done a lot; but sometimes I think it would be nice if she just sat down and talked and didn't have like the 15 inch shoes on and stuff. I mean, I love it as a performance thing, but I don't know. I just think to find accessible role models - that's what really inspired me.
MS: How do you think your art has evolved? The last time I spoke to you was 1994; as you've grown and developed, how do you see where you are today?
SB: I think the most exciting thing for me is that every time I get on stage it's a brand new experience and it's always a challenging, wonderful opportunity to get deeper into my craft and who I am as a person; and strip away the layers and peel back the onion and I feel like I really do that every time I perform. And I have a daughter now who is 12. She's amazing and I'm just inspired by her, every day. I always want to do things that make her feel proud and give her confidence, so that definitely feeds into my work. And also my girlfriend and I have been together for 11 years, so that's really changed like the whole tenor of my life because I was always in and out of relationships with people and I was sort of like a satellite. I never really consulted people about doing anything in my life, other than like, "Okay, I'm leaving now, see you in two weeks." [laughs] But now I'm in a real relationship and my girlfriend demands that we do things as partners and that's been a big revelation for me; because that's very hard; after doing everything on my own for so long. But also, to raise a kid together and balance that with my career - it's been really inspiring and challenging and eye opening for me.
MS: You seem like you're in a happy place.
SB: I am! I mean, a lot of the times I'm pissed off because I can't have my way. [laughs] But ultimately once I'm through it I am happier than I was, just thinking that I'm going to do it in spite of everybody.
MS: What keeps driving you to keep creating and getting out there on the road?
SB: First of all, it's just my natural inclination, to be creative, and I need to have an audience to do it. It's not like - I like to write, but the pleasure doesn't come out of just writing, the pleasure comes out of seeing people respond to my writing. And number two of course, it's how I support my family. So the two things work beautifully together because I love doing it and I need to support my family so it's kind of a no-brainer.
MS: If you had to assign some overarching message to your whole body of work, what would you think it would be? I know that might be a really hard question.
SB: No, it's not that hard. I think it is kind of everything we just talked about. I think it is really about being an individual; it's about really tapping into your source as a person, as a human being; and why do you think you're here; what do you want to say? Whatever you do, whether you are a lawyer, or a chef, or a street cleaner - what is your message to yourself, and what is your message to the universe? Because this is all pretty bizarre, that we're here and we function and we've built all these buildings and we drive our cars - it's weird and when you take it into the abstract it's kind of like daunting. There has to be some metaphysical or spiritual purpose to it; whether you are religious or whether you're kind of like agnostic or atheistic - there is something spiritual to this experience.
MS: Oh, absolutely.
SB: So what is that? What do you want to accomplish through this journey? I think that's what my work constantly reflects is thinking about that; breaking it down and making it really entertaining.
MS: How would you describe your own spiritual beliefs or philosophy that guides you?
SB: Well, I think the overarching theme is equality, humanity and happiness and how to find that. And being somebody who fully supports that in everybody - even the meanest person alive - your wish for everybody is to find that place of peace and contentment so you are not constantly thrashing and beating up other people. Because if we could all find it, it would certainly solve a lot of the issues in the world.
MS: Are you hopeful that humanity can rise to the occasion? I feel like something evolutionary is happening....
SB: Yeah, I do too; I've been feeling that for a long time. I'm ever optimistic, so I assume that everything has to get really ugly, before it gets better constantly; but I'm hoping that we can eventually reach that point of Nirvana where we don't have to do that. But in the meantime I'm certainly willing to find my own Nirvana for myself and my family and my friends and my audience. And those who don't want to join in; I can't - you can only bring people so far in your invitation.
MS: Do you have any rituals or practices or ways that you keep yourself centered and sane? For me, I try to take some time to meditate in the morning. Are there things that you do to make sure that you are nurturing your inner world?
SB: Well, yeah - certainly on a spiritual level, my kind of Jewish Kabalistic practices that I do and meditations on healing and things like that. But I think most of all it's all connected to my work and supporting my family and constantly being willing to admit my faults and my shortcomings and being a participant in life wherever I'm living it.
MS: Women are taught to fear or fight aging. How do you feel about getting older? Because I feel like I am coming so much more into myself and my power as get older.
SB: Yeah - I definitely know myself better and that's the best part of it. I'm more comfortable with myself, on every level, but I just think I feel like I have a responsibility to take good care of myself. I work out a lot, I eat really, really well. Yeah, of course I mean I take care of myself - I take good care of my hair and my skin and it feels good to do that. I don't think I'm narcissistic and I don't think I spend too much time on it; but I think my maintenance is practical and enriching.
MS: As you know, I run Feminist.com - there are so many different definitions about feminism, many of which I wouldn't even sign on to - but what would be your personal definition of feminism, of being a feminist, to you?
SB: I think it was the one that I kind of grew up on, which was to be self-sufficient; to be strong; to be nurturing to friends and family and be compassionate - even when people don't understand what you're trying to do, to a certain extent. I think, really, for me it's kind of being a warrior and fighting through all odds to be an individual, independent and free.
MS: I like that. With this show, what are you most looking forward to? Why should people come out to see you?
SB: First of all, I used to perform in Texas a lot in the past few years; I don't know if it was because of the political climate, I just hadn't been down there. I just think that there's nothing like live performing and there's only a few people that are really good at it and without sounding like I'm celebrating myself, I'm one of those people, and I always put on a fantastic show, and I think that people should just come out and support me as an artist, but also the cause that I'm involved with. And just in general, just get out and be inspired and not be sitting at home on the computer, bummed out. Save your sheckles and come see a great show that kind of opens your horizons.
MS: By the way, you mentioned a computer and I have noticed that you are Tweeting - are you enjoying that interaction?
SB: I am, I love it. I mean I'm on Facebook, but my manager does that for me, mainly, just to interact with my audience, but also to keep the whole technological thing going. But when I started doing Twitter, it is so easy to get on it; it's like I'm in control of it, and I say the things that are on my mind; whether they are funny or topical or whatever. It's fun, and I've developed some friendships with people on Twitter and a couple of people I go back and forth with quite often, but I think overall it has been a really positive interchange with my fans and people who enjoy my work.
MS: What I love about the Internet in connection to what we've been talking about, is that on the Internet we're often just interconnecting as pure consciousness. We sometimes don't know if the person we are interacting with is a man or a woman, we don't know what their race is, what they look like, what their sexuality is...
SB: Right, exactly.
MS: I think that's a positive trend. What is your wish for the children of the future?
SB: Well, my wish for the future is for all children is to have the sustenance and the peace and a healthy planet and the respect for themselves and for everybody around them to really have a wonderful, fulfilled life.
For more information, visit www.sandrabernhard.com.
Since she first stepped on stage at the Comedy Store in the ‘70s, Sandra Bernhard has been challenging fans and critics with her outrageous humor, keen satire and rollicking stage shows. “Give the dame her due,” writes the New York Times, “It's invigorating to be in the presence of a true original.”
Bernhard, who writes and develops all of her own material, has produced numerous one-woman shows over the years, among them: Without You I’m Nothing—which was released as a feature film—Excuses for Bad Behavior, Giving ‘Til It Hurts, Hero Worship, the Love Machine, and Everything Bad and Beautiful, which ran for two months off-Broadway, before Bernhard toured with it, making numerous stops across the U.S. and in Europe. “A performer of stunning originality. Funny but foxy, super smart and slightly mad!” proclaimed WCBS. “Bernhard is a very funny woman by nature, a rocker by sheer determination and an actress you've seen in eclectic offerings,” says the Washington Post.
Bernhard's last show, “Hero Worship,” featured a five-piece band and was a post-September 11th tribute to Bernhard's commitment to irony—that it, too, has survived September 11th. The show featured a range of musical numbers (some original and some covers). It was a fearless attempt to show that life must continue and the show must go on. Other notable performances include her participation in the “Stormy Weather Benefit '98,” organized by Don Henley, which also featured Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell, as well as “The Elton John Tribute for Broadway Cares.”
Bernhard’s one-woman Broadway show, “I’m Still Here … Damn It!,” was hailed by the New York Times as “an angst driven, foul-mouthed poison-laced joy ride that banks and careens frenetically through the worlds of fashion, celebrity, rock, and religion. In her own voice, unfiltered, [Bernhard] is a living, breathing bonfire.” The show, which initially ran for five months off Broadway, went on to play sold-out runs in Boston and San Francisco, and was filmed for an HBO special.
Bernhard first earned film accolades in 1983 when she appeared in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” Other film work includes “Inside Monkey Zetterland,” “Track 29,” “Hudson Hawk,” “Dinner Rush,” and “Dare.” And she is about to begin filming on two new projects.
From 1991-1996, Bernhard portrayed Nancy Bartlett on “Roseanne,” and she has had guest starring or recurring roles on numerous other shows, among them; “Ally McBeal,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Sopranos,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “The L Word,” “Will & Grace,” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” She has appeared numerous times on “Late Night with David Letterman,” and has been a guest on “The Tonight Show,” “The View,” “The Joy Behar Show,” “The Jimmy Kimmel Show,” “The Rachel Maddow Show,” and Showtime’s “The Green Room,” among others. She has appeared regularly on the Howard Stern show since the ‘80s. And was the host of “Sandra After Dark,” for HBO, and “Reel Wild Cinema.”
In addition to her original songs, Bernhard performs covers from Led Zeppelin to Laura Nyro; Burt Bachrach to Britney Spears. “One moment, her voice is lulling you into a wistful sigh; the next, she's knocking you back several rows with it,” proclaimed the SF Weekly. Her albums include: “I’m Your Woman,” and most recently she collaborated on the world music album “Whatever it Takes,” featuring African musicians such as Papa Wemba and TK. She has also sung with or opened for various musical acts, including: The Pretenders, Cyndi Lauper, and the Scissor Sisters. She participated in the “Stormy Weather Benefit '98,” organized by Don Henley, which also featured Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell and “The Elton John Tribute for Broadway Cares.” Bernhard has also lent her talents to benefits for organizations including: The Ali Forney Center for LGBT Homeless Youth, and Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS.
Bernhard has written three books: Confessions of a Pretty Lady (Harper&Row, 1988), Love, Love and Love (HarperCollins, 1994), and May I Kiss You on the Lips, Miss Sandra? (William Morrow, 1998). And she is currently at work on her fourth collection. Her work has also been published in numerous magazines, including, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveler, Rolling Stone, Interview, and Spy.